Of Flags and Flowers

I sometimes think our house has the curb appeal of a fairway exhibit. Or else a parade float. I can’t decide which, but I blame our neighbors.

We live on a busy corner in an older neighborhood. At some point during the pandemic, a house across the street started flying one of those Trump-Rambo flags and I was incensed enough to not care whether our response made us look like we were trying to sell hot tubs at the county fair, or enter the Mardis Gras parade.

After careful consideration, we hung a trio of our own flags. Combined, they’re about a third the square footage of our whole house, and so aggressively brilliant and demonstrative. We’ve never been flag-flying people and I kind of waver on the edge of embarrassment every time the wind blows.

The neighbor with the faux Rambo flag moved at some point, and eventually we took ours down, too. We put them back up for special occasions, like to commemorate Pride month, for example, or Juneteenth, or welcome our part-time legislature to town.

As much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I really do think about the impression we make in our neighborhood. I cringe when weeds start popping up in the yard, or we’re the last to take down our Christmas lights. I think about removing the flags all the time when they’re up. They’re so garish. And again, we’re not flag-flying people.

Our neighborhood is old. There are no covenants, which is one of the most charming things about it. Every house is different. There’s old and new, here. There’s the well-kept and bedraggled. It’s loud and lived-in. After 17 years of living in a fully populated but seemingly near-deserted subdivision on the edge of town at least a 30-minute drive from anywhere interesting and hemmed in on all sides by arterial roads, this place felt perfect for us.

I know the flags get attention. We get thank you notes about them from our neighbors. And once, when they were down, we got a note urging us to be brave and not to cave the pressure they imagined we were getting (but aren’t). After a recent windstorm, we were too busy for a while to attend to the flags right away. A neighbor who noticed our pride flag was ripped stopped by with a new one.

The flags aren’t the only thing about our house that gets attention. Along one road we have a fence with a low retaining wall. Every April, tulips spring up along that fence. For the last three years, someone has made it a habit to methodically snap the stem of each tulip just after it blooms. They don’t take the flower but leave it in the rocks, or they throw it over the fence. Every April morning for the past three years I have walked along our property to pick up discarded tulips.

I suspect the culprit is some thoughtless grade-school kid with ADD. Picking up broken tulips made me a little sad, but I figured they’d be gone in a couple of days anyway, and whoever it was would one day grow out of the behavior. Either that or move away.

This might be the year for that to happen. My tulips have remained unmolested this spring long enough for some to age and drop their petals and for others to emerge. I never realized how many hundreds of tulips line the fence until now. My tulip-breaker probably encouraged this growth, like pinching off the blossoms of a basil plant makes the leaves grow fuller.

At this point, my tulips are a gorgeous, unmolested riot of yellow and maroon that greet me every morning and make me very happy.

Yesterday, I noticed a board from our dilapidated fence had fallen out. I could see through to the street in one four-inch gap. I watched a couple of small figures pass and hurried out, worried kids walking home from school might encounter our board in the sidewalk with rusty nails poking up.

I came around the corner to a brigade of short people. They were lugging coats someone forced on them that morning, and which someone else made them to take home that afternoon. There were jackets draped from shoulders in the spring sun, hanging from handlebars, or dragging like anchors along the sidewalk.

Each child was also carrying an armload of tulips.

We’ve long speculated on what we might do if we came across our tulip-breaker. Whether we’d confront him and to what end. But these kiddos weren’t our culprit. They were taking their blooms of pinks and yellows and purples with them, not leaving them. Mine weren’t the only flowers they’d plucked on their way, and there were still hundreds left intact along my fence.

They stopped on the sidewalk when they saw me.

“Hey there.” I said, “it’s okay to pick what you want, but leave some for me, okay?”

“Do you live here?” One girl said, gesturing at the house with her bouquet. I nodded,

“I like your flags,” she said. “I suppose that means you support that? The LGBTQ thing? I guess so, right? Since it’s your house.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Yeah, that’s what that means.”

“Well, give me five,” she said, brandishing a cone of papers at me like a sword. I batted a high-five at it. Her arm was tucked through the sleeve of a jacket that was otherwise all the way off and dragging on the ground. Her other hand was full of flowers, a backpack dangling from her elbow.

“I’m taking these home to my mom,” another girl said, showing me her bouquet. “She works nights now, so we literally only see each other for a few minutes after school before she leaves.”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate your thinking of her.” I said, hoping the flowers didn’t have far to travel. I picked up one or two blooms that had fallen from her grasp and handed them to her.

I heard a yell and looked up to see another kid down the street, struggling to maintain his balance on a bike with his own haff-doffed coat and dragging backpack.

“Guys, here comes Otis,” the high-fiver said (Otis may not have been his real name, but I can’t remember his real name, only that it was something cute and awkward, like it could have been a name for a hamster as much as a kid).

I stood there, feeling compelled to wait for Otis too. Relieved that they weren’t trying to ditch the straggler. Relieved that they weren’t our notorious flower breakers and happy that our tulips would make someone’s mom feel loved. My youngest at one point would bring home every shiny rock and mangled barrette he’d find on the playground as a gift for me.

“HEY,” the littlest one of these shouted at me, brandishing a purple tulip. “Here’s a fwower for you!”

I doubt our flags made as much of an impression on any of our visiting legislators as they did on these kiddos, regardless of the impact those policy-makers will one day prove to have had on the rest of us; how welcome or safe (or not) these children will feel as they grow up here, how easily they’ll be able to access medical care, or find a book they want at the library.

But for now, they felt welcome to chat with me while waiting for their friend, to pluck my flowers and give me a high five and to offer chaotically pretty gifts: a bloom with a stem too short for any vase, a memory of playground-trampled hair baubles presented with pure love.

Anyhow, this is just a long way of explaining why the flags will be staying up a while longer this year.

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